1902 Encyclopedia > English Literature > Period of the Renaissance and the Reformation (1477-1579): More, Colet, Miracle Plays

English Literature
(Part 5)


More, Colet, Miracle Plays...

The decline of the scholastic philosophy in England in the 15th century, as indeed in every other country of Europe, was noticed in the last section. A new interest seized upon all the more lively intelligences, - that of recovering what, having passed into oblivion, might still be recoverable of the works of the ancients, as well as of appropriating thoroughly what was already known. In Latin literature the chief works had long been known; Virgil, Ovid, and even of the works of Cicero, had for ages been the delight of scholars and the food of poets. But even in respect of these, the greater publicity which the multiplication of copies by the printing-press gave to them led to innumerable questions being stirred, which till then had lain comparatively dormant. The problems of textual, philogical, and literary criticism, which the careful study of an author suggested to an acute mind, were taken up with eagerness by a large and ever – increasing circle of students. But it was Greek learning, because of the comparative newness of the field, and the inconceivable value of the treasures which it hid, that awakened the most intense and passionate interest. The story of the revival of Greek studies in Italy, towards the end of the 14th century, is as exciting to a sensitive intellect as any romance. Gradually the contagion of the learned frenzy which created a hundred academies and literacy societies in the Italian cities spread itself across the Alps. England was but a very little, if at all, behind France. The steps by which a change of so much importance to literature was effected seem to be worth tracing with some minuteness. Without lingering over the names of Gray, Phrea, and Vitelli, by each of whom something was done towards promoting Greek study at Oxford, we will begin with Linacre’s master, William Selling. An Oxonian, and a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury, Selling conceived a fervent desire to partake of the intellectual banquet provided in the schools of Florence, where the great Lorenzo was then ruling the republic; and about the year in which Sir Thomas More was ,born (1480) he traveled into Italy, and attended for some time the lectures of that prodigy of learning and talent, Angelo Politiano. While in Italy he learnt to read and speak Greek, and collected a number of Greek MSS.; but luckily, soon after his return with these to England, they were destroyed by an accidental fire. Thomas Linacre, a Derbyshire boy, had Selling for his master at the Canterbury school; his capacity and zeal for study were great, and when Selling was sent on a mission into Italy by Henry VII. in 1486 or 1487, he took Linacre with him, and left him studying Greek under Politiano at Bologna. In these studies William Grocyn, an older man than Linacre, is mentioned by contemporaries as his "sodalist". Having been for many years a fellow of New College, he visited Italy between 1480 and 1490, and studied chiefly at Florence, under Demetrius Chalcondyles and Politiano. "Grocyn," says George Lilye, "was the first who publicity lectured in Greek literature at the university of Oxford, to crowled audiences of young men." Grocyn was a somewhat hard, dry man; an Aristotelian, not a Platonist. Plato he regarded as a man who multiplied, but in Aristotle he saw the founder of real science. His lectures seem to have been delivered between 1491 and 1500. Grocyn left no works behind him; but Linacre, who probably began to lecture in Greek when Grocyn ceased to do so, was a voluminous author and editor. To him we owe editions of the principal works of some of the Greek medical writers, and a Latin grammar, which was superseded in a few years by the more symmetrical Breviarium of William Lilye, commonly called Lilly’s Grammar. An anecdote related of Linacre illustrates the enthusiasm for letters, mingled with a dash of pedantic. Absurdity, which characterized the age. When about to leave Italy and return to his native country, he erected at Padua an altar, which he dedicated to the genius of Italy; he crowned it with flowers, and burned incense upon it. More, born in 1480, learnt Greek under Linacre at Oxford, in about the years 14o96 and 1497. His Progymnasmata and Epigrams (the latter written conjointly with William Lilye) are the work of a man deeply imbued and inflamed with the classical spirit. The celebrated Dean Colet, whose eminent services to literature and education have been of late years examined and recorded by Seeebohm, Lupton, and others, studied Greek in Italy a few years later than Grocyn and Linacre. He lectured at Oxford after 1497 on the epistles of St Paul (in Greek), and at St. Paul’s, London, of which he was dean, on the Heirarchies of Dionysius. The letters of Erasmus present in the clearest light the "perfervidum ingenium" of this remarkable man, who, as the founder of St Paul’s school, may be said still to live and work among us. This school he opened in 1510, appointing William Lilye its first headmaster. Lilye himself was no common man. In youth he ahd traveled to the Holy Land, and on his return took up his abode at Rhodes, and made master of the Greek language. Polydore Vergil even says that Lilye was the first Englishman who ever taught publicity "perfectas leteras," by which he appears to mean the Greek authors, but this is certainly a mistake. For the scholars of St Paul’s school, Richard Pace, another Oxford man, wrote, at Colet’s request, a pleasant discursive treatise called De Fructu qui ex Doctrina percipetur (1518), in which are introduced some interesting details respecting the learned men of that day. William Latimer, a priest and an Oxford man, is continually mentioned in the letters of Erasmus and his contemporaries as a scholar of vast erudition and especially conversant with Greek. But he was diffident, and perhaps indolent, and declined the task of teaching Fisher Greek, which Erasmus urged him to undertake.

It is a lamentable fact that after this brilliant opening of the study of the humanities at Oxford, the dawn was overcast, and a dismal reaction set in. Erasmus tells us that, about 1518, a body of brutal obscurantists appeared in the university, who, calling themselves Trojans, attempted by ridicule and petty persecution to discharge the study of Greek. It was on this occasion that More wrote his Epistle to the University (1519), complaining that the party of the barbarians was not put down. The king was induced to interfere, and the nuisance was after a while suppressed. At Cambridge, though the study of Greek appears to have been introduced later than at Oxford, it was carried on without check or discouragement, and was supported by endowments at an earlier period than at the sister university. The excellent Fisher, bishop of Rochester, who was chancellor of the university of Cambridge from 1501 to 1517, and in that time founded, or helped to found, the colleges of Christ and St. John’s, promoted Greek learning with all his energy. He invited Erasmus down to Cambridge in 1511, and procured for him, first, the Lady Margaret professorship of divinity, and afterwards the chair of Greek. He was succeeded by a scholar of some celebrity, Richard Croke, who, after being educated for twelve years at foreign universities, at the expense of Archibishop Warham, returned a most accomplished Grecian, and settled at Cambridge. The archbishop just named, the last before the change of religion, was a prelate of great enlightenment and unfailing generosity. Erasmus, who received from him an annual pension and frequent gifts, is never weary of extolling to his correspondents the "sanctissimi more," the love of letters, integrity, and piety of the of the English primate. Towards the middle of the century Sir John Cheke, as Milton says, "taught Cambridge and King Edward Greek"; his friend Sir Thomas Smith was also a great promoter of learning.

From the suppression of the monasteries in 1535 to the end of his reign, the violence and brutality of Henry VIII, exercised a baneful effect on the progress of learning. Instead of conferring together about the Greek particles, Oxford, men were obliged to consider what they should think and say about the king’s divorce. The fate of More, the finest scholar at Oxford, and a writer of European reputation, of whom Charlee V. said to the English ambassador," We should rather have lost the best city of our dominions than such a worthy councilor," dispirited and alarmed all English men of letters. In such dangerous times, wariness, quietness, unobtrusiveness, must have seemed to be the one way of safety. When the tyrant died, men breathed indeed more freely; but the rapacity and indifference to letters of Protector’s Somerset’s government must have filled all university men with the feeling that the tenure of their endowments was anything but secure, and such a state of mind is not good for the pursuits of learning. Under Mary there was some revival of literacy activity; a collection was made and published of the English works of Sir Thomas More; and new editions of Gower and Lydgate were printed. Warton truly observes, that "when we turn our eyes from [this reign’s] political evils to the objects which its literacy history presents, a fair and flourishing scene appears." On the other hand, the compulsory revival of the scholastic philosophy at the universities, which involved, as we are told, the depreciation of the new learning, was an unpleasant feature of the times. There is a well – known passage in Ascham’s Schoolmaster, where, speaking of Cambridge in Mary’s time, he says, that "the love of good learning began suddenly to wax cold, the knowledge of the tongues was manifestly contemned; the truth being," he goes on to say," that plans were laid by the university authorities to bring back the works of Duns Scotus, and all the rabble of barbarous questionists," into the academical course, in the place of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero and Demosthenes. To throw contempt on the schoolmen,- though it was not confined to the Protestants, for More, Erasmus, Colet, Pace and many other Catholics had expressed more or less of a similar aversion – yet was characteristic of them, for their theologians without exception rejected the Schola. Therefore Gardiner and Bonner appear to have resolved to force scholasticism on the young men of their day, simply because they did not like it.

Yet at Oxford things cannot have been so bad, for it was in this reign that Trinity College was founded by Sir Thomas Pope, a zealous Catholic, "in the constitution of which the founder principally inculcates the use and necessity of classical literature, and recommends is as the most important and leading object in that system of academical, study, which he prescribes to the youth of the new society. For, besides a lecturer in philosophy appointed for the ordinary purpose of teaching the scholastic sciences, he establishes in this seminary a teacher of humanity.’ The accession of Elizabeth brought another change. The schoolmen were again ejected, and with contumely, from English seats of learning. By a singular irony of fate, the name of the owner of one of the brightest and most penetrating intellects ever given to man, Duns Scotus, came to be used, in England, as a synonym for a blockhead. Polite literature was now so exclusively cultivated that it destroyed philosophy. The old systems were discredited, but no new system was adopted in their place. Nor has philosophical speculation ever recovered in England that high place in the hierarchy of the sciences which is its due. In the first twenty years of the reign of Elizabeth though exact scholarship did not flourish much, there was a great and very activity in the work of making translations from the classics. The names of Golding, North, Phaier, Marlowe and Stanihurst indicate the authors of the chief of these. Fairfax and Harrington translated the master-piece of Tasso and Ariosto. But for the ample store of fresh materials thus supplied, the genius of Shakespeare, who had not a university education, must have displayed itself under comparatively restricted forms.

Little need be said of those inferior descriptions of poetry which this period produced. Stephen Hawes, in his Pastime of Pleasure, endeavored, but with very imperfect success, to effect that blending of allegory with romance which was to be the brilliant achievement of Spenser. The mind of Alexander Barclay seems to have been swayed by the Teutonic affinity of which we spoke in a former section; he turned to Sebastian Brandt rather than to Petrarch, and preferred the grotesque humour of the Narrenshiffe to the sonnets on Laura. In Skelton, almost the only poet of the first twenty years of Henry VIII.’s reign, the coarser fibres of the English nature are offensively prominent. His foundness for alteration, and indifference to the syllabic regularity of his verse, show that the belonged to the Teutonizing party among the English writers, and that he may be affiliated to Langland and the other alliterators of an earlier age. He occasionally wrote some pretty little lyrics, - witness the musical lines To Maistress Margary Wentworth, - but buffoonery and a course kind satire were what his nature prompted him to, and in these he excelled. His attacks on Wolsey’s pride, luxury, and sensuality are well known, nor can it be said that they were not deserved; still, as proceeding from an incontinent priest, they remained us unpleasantly of "Satan reproving sin." The macaronic verse in which the poet delighted, a farrago of Latin words, classical and barbarous, French words, cant expressions, and English terms clipped or lengthened at pleasure, was called by our ancestors, for may years after his death, "Skeltonical;" but Warton has shown that he did not invent it, but that it was in common use in his time both in Italy and in France. The end of the reign of Henry VIII. was illustrated by the poetry of Surrey and Wyatt. These two writers, having resided long in Italy, and learnt, like Chaucer, justly to appreciate the greatness of Italian literature, which none of their countrymen since Chaucer seemed able to do, "greatly polished, as Puttenham says, "our rude and homely manner of vulgar poesie from that cause may justly be say the first reformers of our English metre and style." To Chaucer’s heroic restored the syllabic regularity which it had lost in inferior hands, and stripping it of rhyme, he for the first time produced English blank verse. Into this rhythm he translated part of the AEneid. He shares with Wyatt the credit of having naturalized the sonnet in English literature.

In Scotland there arose in this period several poets of considerable mark, all of whom, in respect of their turn of thought and the best features of their style, may be properly affiliated to Chaucer. Henryson wrote in "rhyme royal" – Chaucer favourite metre – the Testament of Faire Creseyde, a sort of supplement to Chaucer’s Troylus and Cryseyde. In the poetical remains of Gawain Douglas, bishop of Dunkeld, there is much melody and sweetness. In the poems of Dunbar the influence of Chaucer is especially noticeable. The Thistle and the Rose and the Golden Terge are poems of the same class as the Assembly of Foules and the Court of Love; the allegoric form, and the machinery of dream and vision, are employed in both. Sir David Lyndsay began by being a great admirer and imitator of Chaucer, but the Teutonic affinities of his mind waxed ever stronger, and he ended by gaining great temporary fame as the author of coarse and ribald satires, directed against the abuses of his day, especially those which deformed the church. His latest work, a Dialog concerning the Monarche, appeared in 1553.

In the article DRAMA it was described how the modern drama grew up, under the shadow of the church, and an attempt was made to convey a clear notion of the mode in which the ancient miracle plays were performed. As the people grew and more numerous, and the arts of life were improved, and experience suggested ways of correcting blemishes and adding fresh splendour to the spectacle, these plays were exhibited with ever increasing pomp. Yet, at the same time, the lay spirit getting and hold of them mmore and more, and the religious laxity of the Renaissance attacking the clergy, we find those which date from the 15th century not only grotesque, but gross to the last degree. Their composition in many parts betrays a scandalous accommodation or condencension to the brutality or pruriency of the hearers. Take for instance, the scene called "The Bridal of Mary and Joseph" in the Coventry Mysteries. To invent masses of ignorant people it may have been necessary to be simple, broad, and outspoken; but it could not have been necessary to introduce a heap of filthy jokes, not found in their original, gathering round the mystery of the Incarnation, for the sake of raising a horse – laugh and covering the checks of the country girls with blushes. It must be remembered that the entire system of the language and allusions in these plays is contemporary. Mary’s kinsman, Abizachar, is a medieval bishop, with his court, his sumpnours, and his apparitors; the whole thing is racy of the soil, and redolent of the national humour; you are no more transported into Palestine than a travestie of "Medea" transports you into Greece. The moral effects upon juvenile spectators of so much loose talk, conveyed to them as it was with a sanction (for a religious aim was always professed, and indeed as a rule sincerely entertained in these exhibitions), cannot have been of an improving nature.

Besides the great serial plays, such as The Chester - The Conventry – and the Townley Mysteries, in the successive scenes of which all the principal truths and doctrines of religion, beginning with the creation, and ending with "Doomsday", were represented, a demand arose for special plays, treating of the life, or the miracles, or the martyrdom of some favourite saint. Such were The Conversion of St. Paul, St Mary Magdalen, and St Anne, which may be seen in a MS., in the Bodleian library. These were sometimes performed in the churches, on the festival of the saint celebrated in them, sometimes in the halls of royal palaces or colleges, sometimes again within the precints of monasteries. Gradually something more refined, more in the fashion, than any miracle play, was called for at courts and colleges. Then arose the moral plays, in which the allegorical treatment and metaphysical refinements which were of the taste of the age were applied to dramatic entertainments. Saints and angels were discarded; and virtues, vices and abstract notions of various kinds took their place as the dramatic personae. The devil of the miracle plays, who had more and more become a grotesque and comic character, at least in may of them, appeared as the "vice" or "iniquity" of the moral plays, and introduced into them also a corresponding comic element; this "vice" as is well known, was gradually transformed into the clown of the modern stage. Skelton wrote two moral plays, called The Nigramansir, which was performed before Henryn VII. and his court at Woodstock, the other Magnyfycence. A more ambitions effort was the Satyre of Thrie Estaits, by Lindsay; this enormous moral play was acted before the Scottish court in 1535, and occupied nine hours in the representation. The dullness and tediousness of plays of this kind owing to the want of human interest, prevented them from holding their ground against the more natural form of the drama which the imitation of the ancients soon introduced; yet Mr. Collier, in his History of Dramatic Poetry, has shown that moral plays continued to be written down to the very end of the reign of Elizabeth. Translation and imitations of the plays of Plantus and Terence paved the way for the reign of a purer taste. Sixteen years after it had witnessed The Nigramansir, the English court was refreshed by "a goodie comedie of Pautus," probably through the instrumentality fo Sir Thomas More, who was then in high favour with Henry. The interludes of John Heywood, court-jester to the same king, were another step in advance. The personified qualities are here dropped, and persons take their place; these persons, however, are not yet individuals, but representative of classes, "a pedlar," "a palmer," &c. The earliest proper comedy that has yet been discovered is the Ralph Roister Doister of Nicholas Udall, the head master of Eton College. In this play, written to be performed by his scholars, Udall imitates so far as he can the style and manner of Terence. It is divided into acts and scenes, and is written in hobbling alexandrine rhyming lines, which, as containing twelve nearest English reproduction of the iambic trimester. He did not see that the movement of our heroic blank verse, in spite of its being shorter by two syllables, represents more faithfully than any other English metre the movement of the iambic trimester; while such rough alexandrines as his only recall the Saturnian verse of Naevius. The recognition of the fact that for the English drama the proper metre is the blank, verse of ten syllables was due to the finer perceptions of Sackville, who, with Norton, produced the tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex, or Gododue, in 1561; this, the earliest regular tragedy that has been discovered was played before Queen Elizabeth in the hall of the Inner Temple. For some years the drama continued to be beholden to the hospitality of the court, or some legal society, or educational institution (Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, St Paul’s school., &c.), for the local habitation where it might display it illusions. But as the popular delight in such exhibitions increased at this time faster the Puritanic aversion to them (although this also was gaining ground, as we shall see), it was in evitable that the stage should ceases to be movable and migratory, and establish itself in a permanent home. The first public theatre was opened at Blackfriars in 1575; the histrionic art became a recognized profession; many other theaters sprang up before the end of the century; Italian plays were adapted, Latin plays translated, episodes of English history dramatized; and, on the whole, a kind of dramatic atmosphere was generated in the English metropolis, highly favourable to the career of a great artist, should such a one appear. More’s philosophical fiction of Utopia, limited from Plato’s Atlantis, appeared in Latin in 1516; it is the picture of an ideal commonwealth. The Governour, by Sir Thomas Elyot, was also intended to be a political treatise; but under the despotism of Henry the subject was too dangerous, and the author confines himself almost entirely to questions connected with education. The earliest good English prose, in Mr. Hallam’s opinion, is found in Sir Thomas More’s History of Edward V., which appeared in 1513. But the curious treatise by Sir John Fortescue, written more than thirty years before, the Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy, is really very good English, and contains few words that are not now in use; if it were divested of its barbarous orthography, this would be at once manifest. Our prose style was much improved by the be the various works of Roger Ascham, who taught Latin to Elizabeth, and held learned conversations with Lady Jane Grey.

The religious convulsions by which the country was shaken to its centre during this period are of title direct interest to the historian of literature; for the line of literacy development which the activity of preceding ages had marked out were not seriously deflected, nor did the theological controversy on either side works which, like Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity or Bossuet’s Variations, may claim, on account of perfection of style or power of treatment, a permanent place in literature. The Reformers of Henry the VIII.’s reign were the heirs and continuation of "Lollardy", but joined to it, from the armouny of Luther and Calvin. New views on predestination, the futility of works, justification by faith alone, and the final assurance of the elect, which had indeed a practical bearing of the most important kind, but were not set forth by our native writers in particularly forcible terms or attractive forms. William Tyndale, who carried on a long and acrimonious controversy with Sir Thomas More, is perhaps the most important writer on that side. Cranmer’s writings show learning, considerable grasp of intellect, and a certain beadth of style; they are deficient, however, in sinceri,ty and manliness. The homely wit and rough satirical power of Latimer are well illustrated in many of his sermons. He, and most of the English Reformers, exemplify in a marked way the Teutonic affinity of which we have more that once spoke; the desire to be sturdily independent, coupled with a sense of teeming latent energy, - of a potentially of great achievement on this and on that, - indicate in them at once the strength and the blemnish of the Teutonic genius. After the accession of Elizabeth, the leading ‘men among the clergy, refusing to take the oath of supremacy, were for the most part driven into exists, and for may years waged, war, in heavy treatise or light pamphlet , against the new settlement of religion. The names of Sandar, Harpsfield, Harding, Stapleton, and many others occur in this connexion. But as they wrote for the most part in Latin, for the sake of Continental readers, their efforts produced little effect, and are now scarcely remembered. Jewel, the Protestant bishop of Salisbury, who had been in exile at Strasburg under Mary, and contracted a close friendship with Peter Martyr, wrote an Apology (1562) in reply to these disputants, from the work drew forth loud charges of naccurancy and unfairness of quotation. The Apology was in Latin, but the Defence of the Aplogy, written in answer to Harding, was in English. The laborious exercise of thought on these topics, and the warfare with pen and tongue which was the result, could not fail to increase the elasticity and enlarge the adaptivity of the language, and so far tended to improve it as an organ of literature.

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